Intro­du­cing Screen­play Structure

Begin­ners some­times confuse chro­no­logy with struc­ture … dramatic struc­ture depends on the order of inform­a­tion presented to the audience”

Charles Deemer, “Prac­tical Screenwriting”

What is structure?

No subject is more shrouded in jargon and mystique than screen­writing struc­ture. It’s easy to become confused by such prescriptive advice espe­cially if it’s conflicting.

Don’t be. The basic concept is pretty simple. Here is a working defin­i­tion of struc­ture as it applies to the scriptwriter:

The way in which he/she uses the audience’s time. Liter­ally what the scriptwriter does with the portion of their lives surrendered to the viewing of the film.

The way in which the scriptwriter tells his or her story. Form and Content are inex­tric­ably linked but it is in the struc­tural choices the scriptwriter makes that his/her indi­vidual voice is most strongly heard.

Struc­ture, in other words, is another name for strategy. This is how the scriptwriter decides where the emphasis and focus of the story will lie.

Why is it useful?

If a script is going well, you may never need to think about struc­ture at all. Some­times the gods make you such presents: a story that liter­ally writes itself. In such circum­stances, you usually know instinct­ively the best and most effective choices to make.

It is only when you are having prob­lems, when you sense weak­nesses and flaws in your story, that struc­tural models become useful. By breaking down your story into separate compon­ents and looking at the mech­an­isms in oper­a­tion, you can often identify where the problem lies.

Struc­tural models, like the famous ‘Three Act’ model, are analyt­ical tools. They are not some­thing graven in stone. If they solve a problem: use them, and if not: ignore them.

Trust your instincts and crit­ical feed­back to your work before you worry that your script fails to comply with a rigid set of rules.

Units of Structure

The acknow­ledged units of Struc­ture are:

Beats: Action that marks a change in the beha­viour of the characters.

Scene : Action that marks a signi­ficant change in the life situ­ation of the characters.

Act : A sequence of signi­ficant moments of change. Ideally culmin­ating or leading to a major change in the storyline.

Plot or Story : The master event.

© David Clough 1995

What to read next
The Three Act Struc­ture  – intro­du­cing the main struc­tural format for commer­cial cinema

M. Knight Shyamalan was the director of The Sixth Sense 1999 which features a crucial early scene between the prot­ag­onist and a disturbed young man. Here he talks about the idea of the ‘sling­shot’ in story structure.

Leave a Reply


Site Index